Frequently Asked Questions about the Generals Paper Requirement
Download a PDF version of this FAQ.
This page is not a replacement for the official rules, which you should read online here. This page is an informal supplement to those rules, developed to clarify and demystify the process of writing and defending your Generals papers. Please let us know if you find this useful, and also if there is any additional information you would like us to add to it.
We require two Generals papers, rather than just one, so that students acquire professional-level research expertise in more than one subdiscipline of linguistics, and also so that general lessons learned in writing the first Generals paper may be applied to the writing of the second.
First, make sure you are exposing yourself to a variety of ideas and puzzles in linguistics. That is not hard to do in our department. If you find your classes interesting, if you attend colloquia and a reading group or two, if you like chatting about linguistics with your classmates and other students, you will inevitably acquire a personal collection of intriguing ideas and puzzles. Among these you will surely find at least two that are promising topics for Generals papers. The more you involve yourself in the intellectual life of the department, the greater the likelihood that you can enter the Generals process with appropriate topics already in mind.
Second, take full advantage of the expertise of the faculty and their eagerness to help you develop your research. By the end of your first year, you will probably have met one-on-one with several faculty members in connection with class papers and projects. You will also have worked closely with at least one faculty member in your second-semester independent study. If any of these interactions are particularly fruitful, or if there is someone new with whom you want to work, schedule a meeting with one or more of these faculty members, to discuss ideas for Generals paper research. (It is also fine to just say “suggest a topic”.) In all likelihood, you will sense when a topic and a working relationship “clicks”, at which point you might consider asking for regular meetings.
The summer after the first year is the best time to start thinking about your first Generals paper, so that you begin the second year with some ideas already in hand. This might be a good time to revisit old squibs you wrote and interesting papers that you read, and an especially good time to talk with faculty about possible projects. At the same time, false starts and changes of direction are entirely normal as you undertake your Generals paper research. These should be no cause for concern (unless they start numbering in the double digits). Just the opposite, in fact. Even your false starts are teaching you something about language, and often end up as topics of your future work.
These arrangements are deliberately informal. If your research focus changes, or you realize that a different faculty member may have more to offer your project, you are free to change the person with whom you meet most regularly. Faculty may shed a tear when this happens, but we know that your needs and the needs of your project must come first.
Most of the faculty participate actively in the Generals process, and the Department tries to assign each faculty member to a roughly equal number of committees. For this reason, you may not get your first choice of committee members (but you will never be assigned a committee member that you have requested not to be assigned to you).
You will also be asked to identify the likely areas of your two papers, and we will try to ensure that your committee includes at least one faculty member from each area. Since your plans may change, it occasionally happens that your committee lacks a representative from one of your areas of research, in which case an adjustment might be made in the composition of your committee for the defense of that paper. If a committee member is on leave when you defend your paper, work with your committee and other advisors to arrange for a substitute.
Most faculty want to have the final version of your paper a week or so in advance of the defense. Their deadlines are sometimes flexible, but that is a topic that you need to negotiate with your committee — and they are within their rights to ask for a rescheduling of the defense if your paper is too late.
How much should you prepare for the defense itself? Well, by the time you have finished a Generals paper, you will be the world’s expert on your paper. You don’t need to spend the night before your defense studying. It’s not that kind of exam.
In most cases, your main pre-defense task is to prepare a handout (or slides, if appropriate) to serve as a framework for your defense. There is generally not much need for any other kind of preparation — but make sure you confirm the advice in this document with your advisors and committee members, in case they have some recommendations specific to your paper.
Step 1: After giving your handout to your committee members, you will be asked to leave for a short time (and to not go far). While you are out of the room, the committee will designate one of its members to chair the defense, and will briefly discuss their evaluation of the paper and what sorts of questions they would like you to answer about it.
Step 2: They will call you back into the room, looking quite serious. At this point, you will probably be asked to start talking about the paper, using your handout or slides. Sometimes, you will be told that the committee would like to begin at some point other than the beginning of the paper. For example, they might want to leave lots of time to discuss a particular section, and are therefore willing to skip a presentation of the facts or a discussion of the literature. All in all, you are basically giving a talk or classroom presentation — except that you should expect to be interrupted a fair amount, and you should not be surprised if parts of your carefully prepared handout are never used. Expect challenging questions, including new ideas and possible problems that occur to committee members in the process of the defense. Expect committee members to insist that obscure, complex or troublesome parts of the paper be explained clearly to them. You will not be asked “trick questions” or quizzed on general knowledge. This is a defense of your paper, not a defense of you.
Step 3: About fifteen minutes before the two-hour block is up, the committee will end the proceedings and ask you to leave the room once more. (You will probably be asked to retrieve a standard Generals defense form from the main office.) The committee will then call you back with their decision.
The two most common decisions are: pass and pass with revisions. A decision of passmeans that you are done. Fill out the form, submit a copy of the defended paper to the main office, and you can cross that Generals paper off your “to do” list! A decision of pass with revisions means that you will count as having passed that Generals defense once you make certain specified changes in your paper, and satisfy one or more committee members designated to approve those changes.
It is theoretically possible to fail one’s defense, but that is a vanishingly uncommon outcome. A student whose paper is clearly unsatisfactory will not normally be allowed to schedule a defense in the first place.
The committee might also ask you about your own plans for the immediate future, including the topic of your next Generals paper or your thoughts about possible dissertation topics. You can use this opportunity to ask questions of your own about how to develop your research or about your progress in the program (though needless to say, this is not your only opportunity to ask such questions!).